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Maybe it’s a marathon you trained hard for, the wedding you spent a year planning, that vacation you dreamed of, or even hitting “send” on a major work project that dominated your life for months. The long-awaited day on the calendar finally arrives, and afterward, instead of reveling in euphoria or relief, you find yourself slipping into a funk.
The letdown effect
Welcome to a common phenomenon known as the letdown effect.
“You have this mobilization of inner energies to take action on something big, and afterward you think you’ll be exhilarated because you accomplished it, but you could have this letdown instead,” said UW Health psychologist Shilagh A. Mirgain. “And if people aren’t prepared for it, it can be a crash. The higher the accomplishment, the bigger the crash.”
That crash could lead you to feel physically fatigued, emotionally depleted, sad, listless, empty or questioning your purpose in life. In extreme cases, it can even trigger clinical depression.
“When you think about these larger events, they’re like a hub in a wheel: There’s a way your life orients around it, and then when you remove it, there is a hole,” Mirgain said. "Sometimes people feel like, ‘When I get married, when I finish the Ironman, when I get the 'A' on the exam, I’ll be happy.’ When people have that expectation, it can lead to disappointment.”
Even psychologists are susceptible to the letdown effect. When Mirgain decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, she trained for months, climbing stairs with weighted backpacks and focusing on nutrition, stretching, sleep, yoga and daily meditation where she visualized herself on the mountaintop. After she finally reached the summit and returned home, she felt a bit lost. “There can be a void before life rushes in,” she said.
Finding the right mind-set
So how can you prevent and counter the letdown effect? Mirgain shared these tips:
“If you can recognize the letdown, you can plan for it," she said. “Get your crash pads out, so to speak." Try to avoid tunnel vision by keeping up other activities and hobbies even as you focus on the big event. "It’s always good to have more than one thing that defines who we are," she said.
Recognize that this, too, shall pass
How long the post-event blues linger can vary depending on how big the event was, how much energy you invested in prepping for it, and how well you prepared for the letdown. “If you can accept the letdown for what it is, it tends to pass much more quickly,” she said. “Try not to catastrophize or get caught up in it.”
Tap into your social network
Isolation can exacerbate your emotional funk. “Sometimes your social community rallies around you with a big event,” Mirgain said. “Everyone gathers at the wedding or your friends show up at a race to support you and say 'Good luck,' 'Good job,’ and suddenly you’re not getting that positive reinforcement anymore." After the big event, thank people for their support or reach out in other ways. If you’re an athlete, connect with your training buddies to talk about how you’re feeling or what challenge you might try next. If you just got married, invite your family to stick around for a few days. “Social support is one of the most important buffers against depression,” Mirgain said.
Look for the positive
“The letdown is like a recalibration of a set point, and there’s actually a value to it. Everything in nature has a rest period, and in some ways that letdown is like a dormant period that allows you to reboot before whatever the new goal is,” she said. “That quiet time to rest and recharge is important. Get more sleep and pay attention to what your body needs.”
Savor the memories
If you just got back from an amazing vacation or another special event, share your photos and memories with interested family and friends. “Remembering and savoring the event, whether it’s through photos or telling people about it, can help keep the experience alive,” she says. “Even though it’s done, you still have the memory.”
Set a new goal
“I’m a big fan of repurposing and thinking about what’s next,” she said. “When I come back from vacation, I have my next travel destination chosen. Athletes can focus on the next race, and someone who just had a wedding could start thinking about the honeymoon or one-year anniversary." At the same time, Mirgain advises waiting until the letdown lifts before making any major life decisions or changes.
Don’t give up if it doesn’t go as planned
Unfortunately, we don’t always achieve the success we’re striving for. If you spent months training for a marathon and then aren’t able to make it to the finish line, that can lead to an even bigger letdown. "That can be devastating, but try to remember the journey and what you learned along the way," she said. "It’s OK to grieve, but you pick yourself back up and you keep trying. Sometimes we learn the most from the things we didn’t achieve."
Know when to get help
You might experience letdown for a couple of days or a week or two, but if it lasts more than two weeks — especially if you’re feeling depressed mostly every day and losing interest in regular activities — talk to your doctor. You might need additional support to treat clinical depression.
With the right mind-set and coping techniques, you can lessen the letdown effect and instead focus on celebrating your accomplishments.
“I’m a big fan of dreaming big and taking small, regular action steps towards these goals. And when you achieve these things, you receive something indefinable that is something you always carry,” Mirgain said. “No one can take that away from you.”